The novel coronavirus and the experience of grief

Taru Bahl | Updated on May 01, 2020

Recognising sadness: Unhealthy anticipatory grief is anxiety, when the mind conjures images of sickness, death and loss   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Going through the lockdown as part of the Covid-19 response, people are experiencing a sense of loss and grief

*Anticipatory grief was first talked about in the 1940s.

* The impact of the novel coronavirus on the mind is complex.

* Psychologists find that for many clients, losing their routine is a major reason for grieving

Grief, I always thought, was tied to death, especially one that was unexpected and premature. So, when I attended a grief workshop recently, I expected most participants to have issues of unresolved personal anguish over the passing away of a dear one. But when the facilitator got people to open up and express their feelings, I was surprised to find them sharing their grief over, among other issues, losing a job, falling out with a friend, getting embroiled in a legal case with a sibling or trying to come to terms with a failed marriage.

Going through the lockdown as part of the Covid-19 response, people are experiencing a similar sense of loss and grief. Many are unaware of it, and therefore unable to put their finger to the feeling and term it grief.

Unhealthy anticipatory grief is anxiety, when the mind conjures up images of sickness, death and loss.

Anticipatory grief was first talked about in the 1940s when German-American psychiatrist Erich Lindemann studied the wives of World War II soldiers who were convinced that their husbands would die in combat. This certainty even before the tragedy took place made them mourn the anticipated loss, come to terms with it and move on by remarrying or falling out of love. So, in cases where the men did return home, they found a new scenario staring them in the face. It was a peculiar and unprecedented way of responding to a personal crisis and, after much research, it was seen not as ungrateful or callous behaviour, but as an outcome of anticipatory grief.

The impact of the novel coronavirus on the mind is complex. Globally, people are making appointments with counsellors to help them deal with the mental mess they are hurtling towards. What is being seen across the board is the uncertainty of the situation. Grief in the time of a natural disaster such as, say, an earthquake or even a road accident is better defined because it can be related to the death or disability of someone close. But in the case of Covid-19, the biggest fear is the unknown factor, coupled with the visual imagery and exaggerated fears playing in one’s head.

Psychologists find that for many clients, losing their routine is a major reason for grieving. The activities that people were busy with prior to the lockdown — going to work, visiting friends, eating out, planning for holidays, confirming appointments at salons or going to the local provision store — were all part of a routine formed over the years.

“The brain is designed to respond to structure — that is, structuring time and activities through the day. This sudden change has shaken our individual habitual structure. This, in turn, challenges the mind to find a new normal by programming our mind to respond to the situation with a difference,” says Delhi-based psychologist Vimal Kumar, whose counselling outfit Ipdidaah has seen a surge of cases in recent weeks.

Mental health experts, in conversation with BLink, stress that understanding the stages of grief can help a person cope with it. There is denial in the early stage, when you tell yourself, “This virus won’t affect us”, followed by anger, when you are more likely to say, “You are making me stay home and taking away my activities and all the things that I have to do”. Then you negotiate with yourself: “Okay, if I social distance for two weeks, everything will be better.” This is followed by sadness, which pulls you down as you tell yourself, “I do not know when this will end, and if it will end at all. I fear for my near and dear ones. It’s going to get us”. And, finally, there is acceptance, where you are somewhat calmer and allow the realisation to sink in: “This is happening. It is not a bad dream. It is not happening to someone else. It is happening to me and I have to figure out what to do and how to move ahead.”

Clearly, it is the stage of acceptance that is the ideal state when you feel more in control and have the most constructive approach, keeping in mind all the uncertainties and evolving scenarios. This is when you are most likely to tell yourself: “I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually. I can spread the message. I can be vigilant about the symptoms. I can keep myself healthy and manage my other medical conditions and I can be positive and hopeful.”

Sticking to a routine and focusing on those parts of your life that are still in your control will help you cope with the situation. Even in isolation, cooped up in your apartments, you will have to find ways to set up a system that allows you to compartmentalise your day with a plan that is customised to your needs.

And, finally, acknowledging your grief to yourself and those around you will help you get through. “The human brain is also designed to adapt. Cultivating resilience is unrelated to the clichéd notion of time healing all wounds,” Dr Kumar says. “Overcoming the lockdown and its aftermath must not be the end goal. Instead of focusing on moving on, process and live with what has happened.”

Taru Bahl is a Gurugram-based freelance journalist who works in the social sector

Published on May 01, 2020

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